The women from Ukraine sat in the public gallery directly above the Taoiseach. Two months ago they could never have imagined this day, but here they were, unexpected guests of the Irish parliament, still trying to process the tragedy of their new reality.
An air of excitement rippled round the Dáil chamber as TDs and Senators gathered for Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s address. Diplomats and their aides packed the public gallery. The press gallery was full. The Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery was reserved for Ukrainian ambassador Larysa Gerasko and her party.
The sense of occasion was heightened by the many sartorial expressions of silent support for Ukraine, transforming the drab benches into a vibrant canvas of blue and yellow. A sketch artist in the gallery captured the scene.
In normal times, the special guest is escorted into the chamber by ushers and noisily applauded. But on Wednesday, the familiar figure of president Zelenskiy silently materialised on two big screens. The politicians turned as one to face him.
Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl opened proceedings, welcoming “a friend and ally whose people, whose country and whose democratic institutions are under monstrous, bloody and vicious attack”.
When his turn came, Zelenskiy did not waste time on pleasantries. “Dear people of Ireland, this night our territory was again hit by Russian missiles.”
The atmosphere in the chamber instantly changed. Zelenskiy’s audience listened intently, his chilling words relayed into the strained silence through an interpreter as he listed the latest litany of carnage.
On a mission
He was not delivering a speech for the ages. He was on a mission to seek help for his country.
Kind words butter no parsnips. But even if they did, there won’t be any to butter this year. It is the sowing season now in Ukraine and Russian troops are planting landmines in the fields.
It was hard to comprehend the brutalities this brave, dignified man described: appalling scenes of death and degradation in Bucha and the hopelessly deteriorating conditions in the besieged city of Mariupol, where bombing “continues 24/7” and “there is not a single house left intact in a city of half a million. None.”
When he spoke of bodies left lying in the streets, a young woman in the gallery buried her face in her hands, silently rocking back and forth as her president outlined the depravities inflicted on her compatriots.
A little girl with pink bows in her hair sat quietly and closely beside her mother in the back row of the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery, looking around, wide-eyed, taking everything in.
Speaking from his office in Kyiv, Zelenskiy called on Ireland to show more leadership and convince its EU partners to bring in tougher sanctions against Russia. The economic lifeline to Putin’s regime must be terminated. His words will have resonated with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, who chairs the Eurogroup of EU finance minsters.
But Zelenskiy was sincere in his gratitude for what the Irish Government and people have already done for his country.
When he signed off with his thanks, the chamber responded with thunderous applause and a prolonged standing ovation. Some TDs were in tears. The four members of People Before Profit-Solidarity got to their feet but did not clap.
A principled gesture, but for the day that was in it, it left a bad taste. Richard Boyd Barrett later made an impassioned anti-war speech supporting the people of Ukraine, but little else. The Ukrainians in the gallery did not applaud him. Ideology will not bring back their murdered loved ones and it won’t feed starving people.
The Taoiseach spoke with passion and emotion, addressing the screen as if Zelenskiy was there in person. “Russia will have to live with the shame and ignominy of what they have done in Ukraine for generations,” he said, promising full support for Ukraine’s EU application.
On the screen, Zelenskiy listened impassively. He looked exhausted but he said what he needed to say, signing off after Martin had spoken. The leaders of the main parties and political groups were yet to come, but everyone understood their honoured guest’s time is precious and hasn’t he suffered enough?
Apart from the speech from Boyd Barrett – which may have angered some TDs and Senators but was the socialist deputy’s democratic right to deliver – all speakers agreed that Ukraine must be given every support in repelling the Russian invaders.
They said all the right things. But it was the contribution from former Irish army officer Cathal Berry which drew the biggest reaction from the Ukrainian in the gallery.
Picking up on the president’s plea for more leadership, he had a suggestion to make. “One hour’s drive from here in the Curragh Camp,” he told the Taoiseach, “there are hundreds of anti-tank rockets nearing the end of their shelf life that could very easily be transferred to the Ukraine defence forces.”
Directly behind him, Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy shook their heads in disapproval.
“Very, very easily done,” said Berry.
And in the gallery, the Ukrainians cheered, applauded and waved their flag.
Mark Daly, Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, closed the session by “welcoming five- year-old Anastasiia to the parliament of our republic”.
He said she left Kyiv with her mother, Yana, after their home came under artillery fire. Yana’s husband stayed behind in Ukraine “and is fighting to keep it free and independent for his daughter’s future”.
As the chamber cleared, the Taoiseach went up to meet little Anastasiia and her mother. He posed for a photo with her.
Yana Semonova lived in Donetsk until the Russians invaded in 2014. She fled to Kyiv. On the first day of the invasion this year, the family went to her in-laws’ home in Makariv about 100km west of the city.
They had to leave Makariv under Russian artillery fire, moving back to Kyiv for a few days before moving on to Poland. They arrived in Ireland on March 18th.
In his speech, the Taoiseach had told Ukrainians who have arrived in Ireland: “You have safe harbour her for as long as you need it. Our home is your home.”